Through the years I was never able to persuade my father to take a share of the spotlight he so richly deserved…and now he is gone. Milfred J. (Deacon) Palmer was responsible for getting me started in the right way in sports and life in my formative years.
I remember when I was a little boy, four or five year old, how I would ride on the tractor with him as he mowed the fairways of Latrobe Country Club. Her was the course superintendent at Latrobe for fifty years. We lived right on the course.
When the Depression came, the Club needed a course superintendent more than a gold professional, so the officers made him both. He was the pro for more than forty years. Pap and his men even built the back nine at Latrobe and, in my opinion, it’s a better nine than the front.
When I was filming the television show that led to the writing of this book, I was stuck for a guest as Bay Hill in Orlando, Florida, where I wanted to play the seventieth hole, a par-three that doesn’t have to take a back seat to any in the world.
Bay Hill was designed by the late Dick Wilson, whom I consider the finest of all golf architects. His subtle nuances around the greens catch the most wary player, and he had the ability to lay out a course that utilized every bit of natural terrain.
The seventeenth is a fully carry over the water, with a long, shallow trap guarding the front right two thirds of the green. Bunkers are also well placed to the left and back of the green. The green is wide and fairly shallow, with the toughest pin placements on the right side behind the water and trap. The tees are elevated.
This hole has fond memories for me. A whole gang of us were playing a rainy-day eightsome and we had all kind of little matches going among us, We came to this hole and I asked my caddy, Tom, what club to hit.
“A three-iron,” Tom replied.
I hit a three-iron and hit it pretty good. It went in the water. I asked Atom what he was doing to me and took a two-iron out of the bag.
“That's too much club,” Tom said. I hit the two-iron, which bounced short of the pin and went in the hole. I looked over at Tom with a smile. “No, suh, Mr. Palmer, you hit that fat,” Tom said, not giving up. “I still say it’s a three-iron.”
All I know is I made three the hard way.
There are also one or two alligators in the lakes at Bay Hill that are often seen sunning themselves. And a female skin diver retrieves the many golf balls hit in the water from time to time.
One day, former Vice President Agnew, who has visited Bay Hill, hit a golf ball in the water. When he walked up to the edge of the hazard, she popped out of the water and handed him his ball. He was astounded.
On the day Pap and I went to play the seventeenth, I think that Deacon was a little nervous.. I tried to relax him but really didn’t have to. He smashed a good three-wood about forty feet from the pin. I’ve never seen a happier expression in my life. I hit a two-iron and was on the green, too, only about eight feet from the cup.
When Pap knocked the putt in for a birdie deuce, you’d think he had been a television star all his life. He calmly walked over, picked the ball out of the hole, and looked at me. “You’re away.” He said. Remarking to myself that “I’d better make mine or I’ll never hear the end of it,” I worked pretty hard on my putt and got it in the cup for my birdie. Still, I was mighty proud of Pap for rising to the occasion as he did.
While Latrobe Country Club was Deacon’s whole life, he came to admire Bay Hill as much as I have since I first played an exhibition match there back in the early 1960s when it was first opened. I had always like that part of Florida, which has the state’s most rolling terrain, many of its lakes, and yet is far enough south to have comfortable golfing weather year ‘round.
I was so attracted to Bay Hill that,. In the mid-1960s, I and a small group of associates began negotiations that led to out purchase of the Club in 1969. It has become my winter home in Florida. My father and mother, Doris, who also had a great influence on my early life, enjoyed spending parts of the winter at Bay Hill. What irony that Pap was at Bay Hill playing golf when he dies February of 1976 shortly after competing a day on the course.
Let me give you another example of how fortunate I was to have such parents when I was a boy. Once I was playing in some kind of a junior tournament in western Pennsylvania and hadn’t yet learned to curb my youthful temper. I was playing badly and throwing an occasional club. When it was over and we were in the car heading home, I realized that the atmosphere was decidedly cool. Before long, Pap turned to me and, in no uncertain terms told me: “If you ever throw a club again, I’ll take them away from you. This game is for gentlemen, and gentlemen learn to control themselves.” It was a very important lesson that has been so valuable to me all my life, and I say the same to any youngster, or adult, for that matter, on whom this shoe fits.
Despite its length from the back tee, the seventeenth is not overly difficult for the low handicapper, unless the wind is in his face (it often is.) It’s more a matter of selecting the right club because of the rather shallow depth of the green. Otherwise, he has quite a bit of room to the right or left. Our low man should be on with a long iron or, high handicapper on that championship tee unless you want him to admire the rather spectacular view across the water from that chute.
From the front tee, which reduces the length to about 160 to 170 yards, he can reach the green with a decent long iron or wood, even if he has that usual slice. So long as he maneuvers the shot to avoid the bunkers, he can make the almost flat green and usually muster a par. Even when the pin is to the right behind the water and the long front trap, he is wise to play to the left side, since a sizable apron lies on that side beside the water short of the green. He should be able at least to make a bogey from there.
Our high handicapper might as well take a bucket of balls to that tee and keep swinging with his driver until he gets across. There is really no place for him to lay up-water to the right and several tall pines to the left short of the green that block that route. Maybe the high man ought to take the example of the ‘gators and the skin diver and swim the ball across. Seriously, a bit of such frustration on that hole should convince out high handicapper that if he is going to play the game, he has better improve. He should head for the pro shop and some lessons.
~ Arnold Palmer